Take the road to Jaisalmer from Jodhpur, and you'll see small villages, the odd hillocks and miles and miles of glistening sand. Cars are few, and it's possible that you'd spot more livestock than people on this stretch. And when you do get there, as locals will tell you, you'll realise that this city is one of contrasts.
The summer is harsh, and the winter freezing. The parched land - a result of low precipitation and extreme temperatures - is hostile, and not suitable for farming. But the sand dunes - a result of the same mix - attract visitors by the hordes, giving residents a source of income during peak season.
"It's a difficult life. Most people earn for three months (December to February) during the tourist season, and live off it for the rest of the year," informs our guide.
Jaisalmer's commercial side is on display at the Sam Sand Dunes - probably the most-visited tourist spot in the city. The approach road is dotted with hotels catering to every budget. And for those looking for a more local experience, a night at a desert camp is recommended. These camps offer traditional entertainment and local cuisine - one even comes with a swimming pool.
On the dunes across the road, camel rides, four-wheeler drives and carriages await. But if it is tranquillity that you are looking for while soaking in the magnificent sights, it might be a little hard to come by. During the peak season, the area could easily hold over 40,000 tourists. Add to that the trash left behind, and it is easy to see why several people have begun to prefer the sands of Dubai in recent years.
The tourist season also brings out members of the local tribes. Camel herders ferry tourists on the dunes, while women belonging to nomadic tribes sing folk songs and perform traditional dances at the various desert camps.
Even children are out on the sands, coaxing tourists to buy chips, soft drinks or a beer while watching the sun go down on the dunes. Once the season ends, they go back to their everyday life - the camels carry water to far-off villages, the women return to their tribes and the kids go back to school. But there's more to Jaisalmer.
Here are places you shouldn't miss, if the Golden City of India is next on your travel list:
Desert National Park:Most national parks in India boast of dense forests and large water bodies, this one is an exception. Although one may not see a tiger or rhino, spotting wildlife that calls the desert their home is a thrill in itself. Keep your eyes out for hares, foxes, the blackbuck, the endangered Great Indian Bustard, Russell's viper and several migratory birds in the winter months.
Jaisalmer Fort:What sets it apart is that unlike most forts in Rajasthan, locals inhabit this one. One can shop, eat and sightsee while strolling through it. What is unusual to see though is the large number of 'Free Tibet' banners that dot shops.
Longewala:JP Dutta's Border (1997) was a hit at the box office. And while most believe it is a work of fiction, a visit to Longewala - on the road to Tanot - will prove otherwise. Border Security Force (BSF) officers stationed here show you the well that was poisoned by Pakistanis in the 1971 war, an enemy tank and crane still there and a memorial to those who sacrificed their lives for the country.
Border:The Indo-Pak border lies less than 20 km from Tanot. Though not as famous as the Wagah Border, one can see the last Indian pillar and the Pakistani outpost from here. Visitors, however, are not allowed after sunset. One also needs prior approvals from the BSF to go there. Interestingly, Jaisalmer's proximity to Pakistan is also visible in the local markets with paan masala from across the border sold openly in shops.
Bada Bagh:Other points of interest you could also head to are Patwaon-Ki-Haveli, Thar Heritage Museum, Maharaja's Palace, Gadisar Lake (with boating) and Vyas Chhatri.
Kuldhara: Rajasthan may be famous for India's most haunted spot, Bhangarh, but you could get a dose of the eerie in Jaisalmer too. According to legend, an entire community vanished overnight 200 years ago at a place close to Jaisalmer. Though there are several tales on the reason behind their sudden disappearance, today all that remains - as proof of their existence - is the abandoned village of Kuldhara. What's more, according to locals, the villagers left behind a curse bringing death to anyone who tried to inhabit it.
Tanot Mata's Temple:This serene spot lies about 120 km from Jaisalmer. It is the last village before the Indo-Pak border. What makes it unique is that the BSF maintains it. They took over the day-to-day functioning after bombs dropped by Pakistan in the vicinity of the temple in the 1965 did not explode. In fact, they now lie on display within the temple premises.
Plan to reach there by 6 pm to see the evening aarti conducted daily by the BSF.